The Makings Of A Legend: Joe Njagu Q & A

How do you measure success?

Words by Alex Gwaze (Curator)
Questions by Alex Gwaze and Joanne Peters (Image Coach & Consultant)

If you were to ask anyone who is making good films in Zimbabwe, I can guarantee you that Joe Njagu’s name will pop up. Joe Njagu is a YALI alumni, a Mandela Washington Fellow and a certified National Arts Merit Awards (NAMA) legend. He is often credited with ushering in a new era of Zimbabwean films. An impressive accolade for a guy whose impromptu film career began with him quitting a good job at Fidelity Printers only to end up working as an extra in Botswana. Nonetheless, Joe eventually found his footing with his debut film “Lobola” (2010) which garnered him the respect and admiration of his peers and critics.

Following from “Lobola” (2010) Joe consolidated his reputation by winning a NAMA and the best Foreign Language Director award at the America International Film Festival for his film, “The Gentleman” (2011). Furthermore, in 2014 he was listed among the top 35 under 35 in Media in Africa by the non-profit Young Professionals in International Affairs. Of late, Joe is known for co-producing the African Movie Academy Award (AMAA) nominated film “Mirage” (2020) and producing the multi-award winning “Cook Off” (2017). “Cook Off” made history by becoming the first Zimbabwean film to be acquired by the streaming giant, Netflix in 2020. Whilst these are all impressive feats what peaked my interest was what “Cook Off” represented for our culture.

I read somewhere that “better representation makes for better stories” and for me “Cook Off” signified that moment when Zimbabwean films began to shed the baggage of farm invasions and hyperinflation and don a new skin. Zimbabwe has been disgraced in the media for what seems like a generation and Joe’s decision to produce a film that showed our culture – as we are everyday – whilst telling a good story helped me remember who I wanted to be before I was labelled a “Zimbabwean” (and all the xenophobia that it entails).

Sometimes it’s not an individual you wanna see in a movie but your culture respresented a way that helps you re-imagine your circumstances. Therefore, I arranged an interview with Joe to see what this cultural shaper wants to create in the future. I’m sure most would agree, despite being already certified a #legend, we still haven’t seen Joe’s true vision manifested.

AG: The older generation know what “madrama” are. So to start off, I want to take you back to the first images of Zimbabweans you’ve ever seen. What was your favourite drama on ZBC as a kid?

JN: I think growing up as kids what we watched was influenced by our parents. I grew up in the 80s – the time of black and white TVs. I remember we had a small black and white TV that was kept in the bedroom (laughs). Yes! In the bedroom. And that TV would be taken out when they wanted us to see something. I guess it was their way of controlling what we watched, especially when the parents were not home. We grew up watching “Mukadota”, “Paraffin”, “Mutirowafanza” and the lot. My favourite I would say was “Mutirowafanza” – he was hilarious. I love comedy and his kind of humour cracked me up. The character was played by Simon Shumba – who was an acting beast. A lot of the stuff I watched during that time was mostly comedic.

JP: I read somewhere you got into film-making through your love for writing stories in school, or “Composition” as they used to call it in the English lessons. Then you got your first break as scriptwriter. Some people say all the good stories have already been made into films, however I would like to know – what kinds of stories make good films?

JN: I don’t believe that all the good stories have been told. Stories evolve just like life. I think any story can make a good film, it just depends on how it is told. This is why there are so many different genres and also a lot of the same stories – told differently.

AG: There is a way the West and even how some South Africans view the rest of Africa. Consequently, African filmmakers are always saying “we need to tell our own stories”. So I’m curious to know – beyond the negative stereotypes – what is the difference between a Western story about Africa and an African story about Africa?

JN: The difference is perspective and agenda. What is normal to me is completely new to the next person. You know, we need a coffee and a beer to really unpack this issue (laughs). But, let’s just say the politics, agendas and a whole lot of things are at play when the West tells or portrays African stories.

JP: A coffee and a beer, wow! (laughs). Talking about African stories – you went to school with the late Anne Nhira. She made the character “Vimbai” iconic during her run on the “Studio 263” series. You visited her on set, leading to your first breakthrough. What was the ‘energy’ like in those early days of the Zimbabwean film industry, compared to now?

JN: Oh my word! The energy during those days was electric! There was a system to how things were done. Artists respected the craft but now it’s the wild wild west. Being on a “real” set was an inspiring experience and in those days “Studio 263” was run properly. Nowadays you have filmmakers who have actually never been on a real set. They do not know what they don’t know (laughs). That level of ignorance is something I believe has contributed to the mediocre content that is produced. 

JP: Interesting. People say that the Zimbabwean film industry is now more like a community than an industry. For instance, even Urban Grooves has branched off into the ZimDancehall, ZimHiphop and Afrojazz sub-genres. But film is still struggling, despite the cheaper digital cameras and softwares available to us. In your opinion, why is the film industry under-performing?

JN: Like any industry in the world, without government support (be it in monetary, policy or structures), you will fail. I like that you gave the example of music. If you remember how the whole Urban Grooves movement started, it was through a government initiative led by Jonathan Moyo (who was the Minister then). The 100% local content drive plus the money they pumped into music really made a difference. I long for the day they can also turn their eyes to films. Film here is seen as the bottom of the food chain. So in an economically challenged country like Zimbabwe – it’s last on the list of priorities.  On the flip side I actually feel like they do not realize their loss. You know Film has so much power and potential to generate millions for the economy. I guess that is a story for another beer (laughs).

AG: Indeed! I know first hand that growing up in Zimbabwe and being an Artist is not seen a real profession. So as person who has worked and been educated abroad, why did you decided to build your career in Zimbabwe and not in America or South Africa?

JN: The answer is simple – I am a big dreamer! I want to leave a legacy. I want to build a film empire closer to home. For me, being exposed to the world was a very big advantage because it made me see what the outside has to offer. When I was in Europe, America, Asia and other established African countries I saw how big this film thing can be. I saw big studios, big stars, lots of money being earned at the box office. Then when you look back at Zimbabwe there was nothing. So I noticed we at home are at a disadvantage. But I also saw it as an opportunity to build something. My mission is to transform our little film community into a real industry.

AG: Dreams often motivate creatives. Most are drawn to the Arts because they “followed their heart”. This pursuit often leads to broke artists who have been taken advantage off. As a producer and a writer, you have been on both sides of this Art / business fence. How do you make money from your Art?

JN: That’s is a very good question. In Zim making money from your Art is one of the hardest things to do. I am blessed because at least I make a decent living from being a filmmaker. So for me really I figured that to survive in this game I would need to not worry about food and rent issues because to be creative you need a stress free environment. I looked at how best I could make quick money whilst I pursue my bigger dreams – that will take time to fulfill. In Film the things that make quick money are the little shoots- TV adverts, music videos, documentaries and so forth. With these smaller things you can be hired and get paid quickly. I do a lot of these as a freelance Director/ Cinematographer. These allow me to get enough money to have my mind at ease so that I can create my things and work on my bigger projects. Making a proper film can take you like 2 years of your life and in between all that you need to survive. So I guess “you need to find yourself that side hustle that gets you paid enough to allow the time to dream“- luckily for me that side hustle is still in film.

JP: How do you find the time to dream though? In every interview of yours I’ve read – you always seem to be working on multiple projects at the same time. How do you handle the pressure?

JN: I actually work best under pressure. I feed off that adrenalin! Film is a pressure business, its deadlines and crazy call times. The most important thing though is to plan. So I prioritize the pre-production stage of a project, because I believe everything depends on good pre-production. Plus I have a good team that I trust.

AG: So what do you do during your down-time. Are there any films you watch? I would like to know what kinds of films inspire you. Not Western films. Can you tell me about your favourite African film and why you like it?

JN: My favourite African film would have to be “Jerusalema”. Not just because it was produced by a fellow Zimbabwean – Tendeka Matatu – but I think it’s one of the best films to come out of Africa. I remember watching it and thinking damn this is so good – the production and cinematic value was just amazing. It really inspired me a lot and I can watch it over and over again.

AG: We have saved the best for last. From “Lobola” (2010) to “The Gentleman” (2011) to “Cook Off” (2017) and “Mirage” (2020). In just over a decade you’ve become a certified NAMA legend and arguably the most recognized filmmaker of our generation. For such a young filmmaker, that #legend must weigh a ton. So to end off, let’s keep it simple, what is success to you?

JN: To me success means you have completed and reached a goal / destination. So I do not think I am successful yet. I still have a long way to go in my journey as an artist. The mission is not yet completed. I thank God for the journey so far and I am grateful for all we have managed to do but the long walk continues kana uchiita #ZVEMAFIRIMUFIRIMU!

Follow Joe Njagu on Instagram: @joenjagu
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